Good and bad Olympic nationalism
Chicago — In addition to being postponed for a year, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have been the subject of controversy. According to a recent survey, 78% of Japanese citizens believed the Games should be canceled, due to concerns over the pandemic. Since then, Japanese media have shone the spotlight on the fact that not all visiting athletes (including 100 from the United States) are vaccinated against COVID-19.
Added to these unprecedented public health problems are perennial political problems, such as the common complaint that the Olympics encourage nationalism or chauvinism. Each event produces a confrontation on the number of medals expected between major contenders such as the United States, China, Japan, Great Britain and Russia (which participates in the Tokyo Games as the “Russian Olympic Committee”, following the country’s ban for doping).
Political regimes around the world recognize that sport can strengthen national identity and that the Olympics, in particular, can confer status on the world stage. Governments have long used the Games to tell their citizens, “We made it. In 1936, Hitler took full advantage of the Olympic Games in Berlin, which had been chosen to host the 1931 Games, two years before the National Socialists came to power. In 1964, the Japanese used the Tokyo Olympics to signal their full rehabilitation after World War II. And in the 1980s, the Olympics became Cold War football, with the United States boycotting the Moscow Games in 1980 and the Soviets boycotting the Los Angeles Games in 1984.
The political value of the Games is one of the reasons why governments are willing to pay so much to host them. China spent $ 40 billion to $ 44 billion, more than any country in history at the time, to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. It was then overtaken by Russia, which spent around $ 50 billion to host the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Between breaking the spending record and annexing Crimea the same year, Russian President Vladimir’s approval ratings Putin have duly soared.
There is no doubt that international sporting events can amplify the more unpleasant aspects of nationalism, as in the case of the 1936 Games in Berlin. Historically, the Games have also reminded the conquered of their lost sovereignty. Until 1924, Polish athletes could only win medals by representing other countries. And for generations, athletes from forcibly annexed Soviet republics, like the Baltic states and Ukraine, were forced to represent the Soviet Union or not to compete.
But not all feelings inspired by international sporting events are bad. A collective desire to win can lessen discrimination against minority groups, such as when the American establishment recognized the talents of Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in athletics at the Berlin Olympics, inspiring generations of black youth. Americans. And more recently, tennis star Naomi Osaka’s phenomenal ability has pushed many Japanese to overcome traditional ethnic and gender prejudices. Osaka’s lighting of the Tokyo Olympic torch will have significant social ramifications across Japan and even all of East Asia.
Sports competitions also provide opportunities for a new country to establish its sense of national belonging. In 1992, Nelson Mandela’s participation in the Barcelona Olympics symbolized South Africa’s exit from apartheid. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Croats came together to cheer on Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanišević and basketball star Toni Kukoč; and Belarusians today can be proud of biathlete Darya Domracheva and tennis star Victoria Azarenka.
Finally, international sporting events also offer unique opportunities for patriotic nation building in countries with internal divisions. For example, researchers have found that qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations and the FIFA World Cup significantly reduces ethnic conflict in sub-Saharan African countries, as participation provides citizens with a shared and reduced experience. mistrust between ethnic groups.
Certainly, while the International Olympic Committee recognizes 206 National Olympic Committees, only 14 countries represent almost half of the 11,326 athletes participating in the Tokyo Games. These 14 countries are all part of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) except China and Russia, which have the second and eleventh largest GDPs in the world. Unsurprisingly, the same 14 countries dominate the medal count and the news cycle.
Still, the Games mean a lot to the 192 other countries that we don’t hear much about. For these smaller, newer, or poorer countries, the Olympics are not about winning the most medals or claiming superpower status. Rather, it is simply a matter of sharing the experience of participation. The Games offer national validation and unity, and therefore a chance to build economic and political stability.
The 52 Games that have taken place since Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic Games have produced many undesirable consequences. But they have also proven to be a positive force in many countries, especially those that seem less important in terms of medals and geopolitical power. Project union
Nancy Qian, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, is the founding director of the China Econ Lab and the China Lab at Northwestern.
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